Program Accreditation: What You Should Know

All BSN to MSN online programs are not equal. There are so many programs out there that just want to cash in on the rising need for educated nurses, that it is important for any potential nursing student to be able to distinguish between schools that just want to make money and schools that are dedicated to graduating qualified and competitive nurses. There are certain qualities that all good schools of nursing share, and there are warning signs to watch out for that can tell you if a school is just trying to take your money and run. Rapid employment growth in medical support fields has led to a glut of schools offering training and degree programs for these jobs. You can see growth in medical jobs compared to the average overall job growth in the graph below. With this healthcare explosion going on, it is more important than ever to research the schools you apply for and make sure the one you attend is for real, and the articles on this site can help you do just that.

Academic Qualifications for Colleges

Just as a diploma or certificate is a credential that shows an individual is trained and qualified in their field, there are credentials and statistics that show a college has proven itself capable of providing high quality education.

Accreditation

One of the most important proofs of a college’s worth as an education provider is its accreditation status. There are many accrediting agencies in the U.S., the most notable of which is The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), which evaluates the efficacy of institutions of higher learning based on the following five criteria:

  1. Mission and Integrity: The HLC examines a school’s stated mission, and determines whether “an understanding of, and support for the mission pervade[s] the institution.” This requires involvement of everyone from the board of directors to the student body in furthering the educational calling of the school.
  2. Preparing for the Future: The HLC wants to insure that the school is using its resources to continually strengthen its educational programs and conducting self-evaluation in service of the institute’s overall mission.
  3. Student Learning and Effective Teaching: All institutions must clearly state educational goals for their students and programs, and show that they maintain effective environments for meeting those goals. Regular assessment of educational programs must show that the teaching and learning environments at the school are meeting their goals and serving the overall educational mission of the school.
  4. Acquisition, Discovery, and Application of Knowledge: “The institution promotes a life of learning for its faculty, administration, staff, and students by fostering and supporting inquiry, creativity, practice, and social responsibility in ways consistent with its mission.” (quoted directly from the HLC Criteria for Accreditation.)
  5. Engagement and Service: The HLC confirms that the institution in question has identified its constituency and engages with them in ways that are valuable both to the institution and the constituency. This may mean engaging with a particular community, be it religious, political, geographic, or academic, in such a way that the community is improved, and reciprocally improves the institution.

The above criteria for accreditation are assessed by The Higher Learning Commission using a group of trained “Consultant-Evaluators” and a “Peer Reviewer Corps,” all of whom must have extensive experience in education to be deemed qualified to evaluate educational institutions. An institution must renew its accreditation five years after it is first accredited, and then every ten years subsequently.

Additional Accreditation Requirements for BSN to MSN Programs

Nursing programs are subject to more stringent accreditation requirements than other programs because of the responsibility for peoples’ health and wellbeing that nurses must take on every day. The National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission, Inc. (NLNAC), is a body that accredits nursing schools offering any level of nursing accreditation, from diploma programs to master’s and doctorate degrees.

The criteria NLNAC uses to accredit nursing programs are similar to those used by The HLC, but NLNAC has much more specific standards regarding curriculum, because very specific courses and skills are required for nurses to meet the standards of the nursing profession. A few of NLNAC’s curriculum requirements for MSN programs include:

  • “Program outcomes are congruent with established professional standards, curriculum guidelines, and advanced nursing practice competencies as applicable.”
  • “The curriculum is designed to prepare graduates to be information literate and to practice from an evidence-based approach in their advanced practice role”
  • “The curriculum and instructional processes reflect educational theory, interdisciplinary collaboration, research, and best practice standards while allowing for innovation, flexibility, and technological advances.”
  • “Program length is congruent with the attainment of outcomes.”

How Are Professional Nursing Standards Established?

Accreditation criteria for nursing schools, and any schools that prepare students for a specific vocation, refer to the professional standards for that field of work. These professional standards may be developed in a number of ways, but for the field of nursing, in which conforming to standards can have significant impact on the health of patients, the standards are established by organizations of experienced professionals who monitor research, educational trends, and behavior in the nursing field. The American Nurses Association publishes a document called The Code for Nurses, which “explicates the goals, values, and ethical precepts that direct the profession of nursing.”

What Else to Seek in Accredited Online BSN to MSN Programs

Accreditation is key when evaluating both online and brick-and-mortar schools, but it isn’t the only factor to consider. There are some accredited schools that are better than others. Some other ways that you can check up on a school’s credentials and general quality are as follows.

  • Learn About the Faculty: Most nursing schools will have professional nurses or nurse educators on staff. The best teachers are people with experience in the field, so if you can find out whether you will be taught by nurses or former nurses, you can gauge how much your education will be based in real-life nursing experience.
  • Learn About Other Students: Finding another student who attended the school you are applying to can give you an insider’s perspective on the school. Were they satisfied with their education? Do they have a good job in the field? Will they be going back to get an even higher level of degree later on?
  • Post-Graduation Employment: Many schools brag about the percentage of their students that find jobs within a year of graduating. Does your school publish this statistic, and if so, what is it? If you’re going back to school so you can boost your career, it pays to find out whether the schools you apply to are known for getting people jobs. Many colleges have career services that will help students find and apply for job opportunities just before and after graduation. Does your potential school offer that?

Advanced Practice Nursing Fields Have Separate Accreditation Agencies

There are accrediting agencies that focus specifically on niches within the field of nursing such as midwifery or pediatric nursing. Because of the sheer number of schools, programs, and accrediting agencies, it can be helpful to contact the state nursing board in your state to find out the exact requirements for nurses in a particular niche in that state. Some of the niche accrediting bodies include:

  • The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) accredits nurse anesthesia programs at the post master’s certificate, master’s, or doctoral degree levels, including programs offering distance education.
  • Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACNM [PDF]) offers accreditation and pre-accreditation of basic certificate, basic graduate nurse-midwifery, direct entry midwifery, and pre-certification nurse-midwifery education programs. This commission also provides accreditation and pre-accreditation of freestanding institutions of midwifery education that may offer other related health care programs to include nurse practitioner programs, and including those institutions and programs that offer distance education.
  • Midwifery Education Accreditation Council (MEAC) offers the accreditation and pre-accreditation throughout the United States of direct-entry midwifery educational institutions and programs conferring degrees and certificates, including the accreditation of such programs offered through distance education.

Earning a Nursing License After Graduation

Attending an accredited school can give you a great education, but it doesn’t fully qualify you to practice as a nurse. You’ll also have to earn a license by passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). After that, you’ll need to attend continuing education classes every 2-5 years to maintain your license and keep up with innovations and standard practices in the nursing and medical fields. Many employers are willing to help pay for this continuing education as long as you promise to continue working for them for a certain period of time.

Tracking down the information you need to make a smart decision about which school to attend can be hard work, but the payoff is too good to consider skimping on your research. Schools want you apply, and so they’ll paint themselves in the most positive light possible, but that doesn’t mean their information is unreliable! Getting in touch with a school and asking them to provide information about their programs is a sure way to get a general overview of any place you might apply to. The links below all lead to accredited colleges and universities that offer online BSN to MSN programs, so you can get in touch with the schools themselves and see what they have to offer.


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